Bodega Bay, CA

We love the sea.

My husband, daughter and I spent a few days at the coast just getting quiet, reading, drinking coffee, walking and listening. The landscape, it is not especially glamorous or light-filled, but we like it that way. I like the quiet serenity of it.

 

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The subtlety of the colors and layers reminds me to look more deeply.

Not everything has to be bright, or vivid. Not everything needs to move.

And yet it does.

 

 

Rainer Maria Rilke Teaches Me About Cancer

I’m reading a superb biography called “A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke,” by Donald Prater and from it I am gathering material and ideas for how to live with breast cancer.

Sometimes poetry and literature are the best forms of bibliotherapy. Bear with me.

For starters, here’s the second stanza from one of Rilke’s poems from his “Sonnets to Orpheus” (II, 13) series:

Be always dead in Eurydice – climb, with more singing,

climb with praising, back to the pure relation.

Here, in the failing place, in the exhausted realm,

be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Background (scroll down to skip): Rilke wrote this entire sonnet – the entire, magnificent series of sonnets – to Orpheus, the mythical Greek lyre player who has gone to the underworld (Hades) to get his beloved Eurydice back. On Orpheus’ and Eurydice’s wedding day, Eurydice was bit by a snake and died suddenly. Orpheus was heartbroken, and was given the chance to earn her return to  life.  In an agreement with both Hades and Persephone, the god and queen of the Underworld,  Orpheus leads Eurydice back through the dark, arteried maze of death, but must promise not to look back, must promise to trust that Eurydice follows behind him as he makes his way back to Earth. Sadly, he fails. His doubts bedevil him, and just before re-entering the light of terra firma, he turns and looks, but his last vision is of her fading back into darkness. It is a tragedy that tears Orpheus apart with grief.  Orpheus’ lyre remains a constellation in the sky called “Lyra.”

What could this mean?

We, cancer patients and survivors, are in “the exhausted realm.” We’re not dead – of course not – but a part of us has died: our illusion of ongoing health, an old life that has changed, a loss of innocence, a sense of ongoingness. I feel that to heal completely, this grief must be felt, acknowledged, allowed to appear fully in the body and mind, and then let go.

It is this feeling and letting go that is the challenge, no? To trust in it. Thankfully we are not bound to an oath like Orpheus, but faith in a new life, a new outcome, or some future hope comes with the painful price of a broken past. It is a pendulum of dark and light. An offering of night, an opening called “Day.” Rilke, in his wisdom, did not recommend an illumination or mirror; rather his word is a gift of transparency, one to break: “glass.”

glass ball on white surface
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

And in breaking, in shattering, he tells me, be the full-throated voice of grief singing.

He ends the poem like this:

 

Be – and know at that time the state of non-being,

the infinite ground of our deepest vibration,

so that you may wholly complete it this one time.

In both the used-up, and the hollow and dumb

 

recourse of all nature, the un-tellable sum,

joyfully count yourself one, and destroy the number.

I feel myself wanting to be in the process of climbing, like Orpheus, back to the “pure relation” of family, daily life without the dark blanket of mortality clouding it. I want to sing praise songs to my doctors, medicine, coffee. I want, like Rilke tells Orpheus, to be “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration” in order to complete the full circuit of grief and healing.

And to count myself, and you, sister or brother survivor, “one” and to wipe out all comparisons, all statistics, all outcomes, percentages, prognoses, doses, stages and grades, milligrams and pounds, cycles, infusions, lab work, blood counts, tumor markers, weights, scans, needles,

o joyous day

and forever destroy the number.

Love out.

“How are you?”

ask blackboard chalk board chalkboard
tPhoto by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

It’s almost always meant well. The asker is curious: you have, after all, been diagnosed with cancer, and you haven’t seen each other in awhile. The asker wants an update. They want to know what’s going on. And so, there’s the initial hello, then the pause:

How are you? How are you doing?”

Sometimes it’s a text message. Sometimes an email.

“How are you doing?”

And you, bearer of the proliferating morass, standing politely with drink in hand, are expected to answer. You have perhaps just had blood drawn, perhaps your tumor markers are higher (indicating growth), your blood counts are off; or you have finished your most recent infusion, grasp fingers that sting with neuropathy, feel too tired some days to even get mail, are bald, breastless, riddled with grief, adrift at work, scattering bills and papers, forgetful, with eyes watering and home disheveled, lie in bed for hours, just brushing your teeth was a climb to Kilimanjaro; take-out dinner boxes litter the countertops, the diarrhea and nausea fluctuate in a horrid yin/yang, and perhaps your gums bleed, toenails have fallen off —

how are you how are you

And in the movie version, the dream sequence. Flashbacks to a past life. In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Offred remembers her daughter at the beach. I think of running, my long hair with the car windows down, drinking Coke, summer drives with my little girl, hikes with my husband, raucous laughter over wine, faded glass over a country road somewhere, faded, fading.

how are you

Do you want to say, “Fine”? Do you want to say, “Hanging in?” I do, I do. I want to give a glib answer. I don’t want to remember, don’t want to talk. I am more than this disease, am more than an update, and cannot answer to this kind, albeit temporary concern. It is kinder sometimes to not ask, kinder perhaps to think what the question means.

I have erred in this, have erred in the asking. But now, on the receiving side, I find myself sometimes unwilling to reply.

Why?

Because the question can trigger remembering. The question can trigger the kind of response that is interrupted – my friend’s mom had breast cancer, too!- with an anecdote that has no bearing, does not help. Or suddenly help is offered, as is unwanted advice about “alternative” treatments. Pineapple cures. Coffee enemas. Or judgement. Or glazed eyes, a disinterest in the reply.

Better, maybe, to say “How’s it going?” or “How about those Dodgers?” Another way: “I’m here for you, here if you ever want to talk.” Or even, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here.”

We are all stumbling with how to ask, how to answer. Compassion is a given.

Yet sometimes it’s better not to ask. Sometimes coffee or tea is best. Sometimes a quick “I’m at the store – what do you need?” is manna from heaven.  Or sometimes silence and companionship – your presence –  are gifts enough.

But I want to add, feel it’s important to add: I always take it with kindness, as it is meant. The intent at the heart of the question is always welcome.

How about you? How do you deal with “How are you?”

“Zero at the Bone”*

I am searching for the language to describe the feeling of a future being gone.

The ways in which cancer robs words, robs next week, next month, next year. Robs plan-making, robs a body of potentials.

This is not the time to be positive.

Allow for grief, allow for anger.

Is it thievery? Theft? Or slicing? A person could imagine meat now. A dog running into an old-time butchery, stealing the prize steak. The butcher himself holding the meat cleaver high, white apron bloody, yelling, chasing the dog into the alleyway. Future lost profit.

Not a rug swept away. An entire floor.

Birds here for the season.

The abrupt “off” of a heat-relieving fan.

Such quiet.

In bed, all imaginings ending with “no.” Remaining awake.

When listening to clocks, counting.

Music in the entryway and briefly the scent of perfume—

hollered greetings hill to hill,

strangers.

 

What strangling might mean if a throat was held by air.

Absence.

Remaining awake to think of it

 

*Link to the Emily Dickinson poem from which this title is taken.

snake on grey wood
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